May 03, 2006

Minamata

Till yesterday I was blissfully unaware of something called as the Minamata disease. I came across it during my daily scan of the Times of India. Hidden in some obscure inside page was a piece of news regarding the 50th anniversary of the worst japanese industrial health disaster. I read the piece and moved on but couldn’t resist the impulse to find out more about the tragedy.

What is it ..

Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning says Wikipedia . The symptoms include birth defects, sensory disturbance in the hands and feet, damage to vision and hearing, weakness, and in extreme cases, paralysis and death.

How it began ..

It all started when Chisso corporation starting dumping its mercury waste in the nearby Minamati bay in 1932. Minamati was primarily a fishing town. So the impact of industrial pollution was huge.

First detected ..

When strange behaviour started being observed in cats, birds and other animals. Soon these were correlated with the symptoms of a unknown new disease in the people of the town. Years of research later, it was established that mercury poisoning was causing this disease. (link)

It continued ..

Despite the first case being diagnosed with the disease in May 1st 1956 , Chisso was allowed to keep dumping mercury into the bay until 1968. The company was not ruled responsible for the health problems until 1973.

Responsible party ..

When first brought to the attention of Chisso corporation, they denied these allegations and continued its manufacturing with no changes to the method of production. The government chose to look the other way.

Compensation ..

The government has only certified 2,264 victims for compensation, 1,435 of whom are already dead. Another 17,128 have applied for recognition. (link)

A National Institute of Minamata Disease was set up in 1978.

However i wonder if any corrective measures so late in the day would be any consolation to those who died painful miserable deaths or their close ones who witnessed their terrible fate.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath


This photo by W. Eugene Smith shows a woman, Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a bath.

A detailed history.
Case study.